Latest UNAIDS report shows that 35 million people are living with HIV in 2013. Since the start of the epidemic, around 78 million people have been infected with the virus that causes AIDS and 39 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses. In the UK alone, an estimated 7,000 people are infected with HIV year-on-year for the past 10 years.
But 39 million deaths are not enough to prevent a small group of discredited people to continue spreading lies and myths about HIV, alleging that the virus has nothing to do with AIDS, or even denying that it exists.
The latest in a 30-year long effort to mislead the public was an event hosted by The Frontline Club in London on Thursday 5 February, 2014. In 2013, a similar event featuring the screening of “I Won’t Go Quietly” a denialist film by Anne Sono at SOAS was canceled under public pressure. Sadly, The Frontline Club chose to lend its venue and name to the promotion of a 16-year old, long discredited book by Joan Shelton questioning the proven link between HIV and AIDS.
How to deal with AIDS denialists in 2015? Should we still engage with them and by doing so give them credit they don’t deserve? Or should we ignore them and in doing so allow them to remain an underground threat to public health?
Engaging with AIDS deniers is like getting into a debate about whether the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it. It is a waste of time as they are not interested in listening, preferring to cherry pick scientific data, misrepresenting science and refusing to accept the most basic scientific evidence and beyond, 30 years of research leading to the successful treatment and return to life of those infected with HIV (AIDS-related deaths have fallen by 35% since they peak in 2005, thanks to medical treatment available since 1997).
No. Stopping AIDS denialists spreading lies is a duty as it is to silence holocaust deniers. To withhold denialists a public platform is not an attack on freedom of speech, it is a responsible soical response to quackery and dangerous theories for the benefit of public health. Controversy and debate are welcome, but lies are not and because denialists argue on indefensible and irrational grounds there are no sensible responses other than a no platform policy.
What is worrying is that such nefarious groups and their wacky theories that have long been debunked are still being offered a platform to promote and spread deception. It is even more worrying when such platform is provided by a respectable and reputable charitable foundation supporting quality journalism worldwide and which counts as Trustees BBC Lyse Doucet and Foreign correspondent Jon Lee Anderson and Professor of Journalism John Owen and Richard Sambrook.
When asked why The Frontline Club was hosting this event, Vaughan Smith, Founder and Managing Director, explained that the venue had been privately hired and that this event was not listed on the Frontline website as one of the foundation’s regular event and did not reflect in any way the editorial line of the foundation. Mr Smith was sympathetic to the concerns raised, and whilst acknowledging that it had been a difficult decision, he did not feel the Club was in a position to decide who should be given access to the venue and who shouldn’t. In short, for The Frontline Club this was purely a commercial matter. In this occasion, The Frontline Club was far from being at the front line of the fight against HIV and obscurantism. Sadly, this event will remain a stain on the reputation of the venue.
Many wonder what are the deep motivations of those who claim that HIV does not cause AIDS despite 30 years of scientific evidence. And this may be the ground on which to engage with them. Is it really the conviction that the public is misled by the medical and pharmaceutical establishments? Are they just delusional? Misinformed? Lazy? Or is it for financial gain? After all, many denialists promote their own cocktails of vitamins and other snake oils to HIV-infected people.
For some reasons quackery appeals to a large swath of the public, in part because of our innate and conflicting fear/respect attitude towards the medical profession. We know doctors can cure us from many ailments but we often question whether they really know what they are talking about (let’s check on Google) and on whose payroll they are (the greedy Big Pharma).
The advent of the internet which provides an easy platform to communicate and engage with large audiences is doubtless contributing to spreading doubt, distrust and disbelief about science and the medical profession. Unsurprisingly this goes beyond HIV. The Net is a haven to conspiracy theorists; there they can vent their mysterious anger against vaccines, Ebola, global warming, the country of birth of a president and so on.
We could just disregard the whole as just another Tea-Party movement with no long term impact on society. But let’s make no mistake: AIDS denialism is not irrelevant. For more than 30 years, quackery and denialism have killed and still do. The case of South Africa where more than 300,000 deaths are attributed to the dubious policies of Thabo Mbeki and his discredited health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang are a reminder of the damage that can be caused by denialism.
To tell the truth is a painful exercise, to accept it is even harder. Being in denial in the face of HIV is natural and that may be why lies and deception can be attractive (and sell well), especially to the desperate, and discriminated against, many of whom are among those most at risk of being infected with HIV. In the ongoing fight against HIV we must not ignore the damage that AIDS denialism can cause and we should not allow its proponents to recklessly threaten public health and society.
I hope the Frontline Club will consider hosting an event to balance the damage done.
This post was edited on 21 February 2015 for clarity.